First you get off the paved road and find the gravel road. Then, you drive five miles, eating Mississippi dust in the summer and sliding in the mud in the winter.
When you least expect to find anything, there’s a little frame church standing behind an oak tree you can’t reach around. The church is always on top of a hill. Over to one side is a graveyard with a chain link fence. The gate is never locked.
What you’re looking for is the long table, made from fence posts and slabs of sundried pine, the kind with warps, buckles and bows between the posts.
Once upon a time, they had dinner on the ground.
I used to go with my Grandmother Ollie. The church was deep in the pines in Franklin County. The long table is still there. The old church is gone. The new church is brick and has fluorescent lights and air conditioning.
Ollie spent most of Saturday cooking pies and cakes. She made a coconut cake. I got to grate the coconut. Then there was her pound cake and a lemon pie. Sometimes she would throw in a rice pudding. Around Christmas she made a fruitcake. I never liked the fruitcake.
She got up before sunrise on Sunday to start her chicken and dumplings. I used to watch. The pot was there, boiling a chicken. She had a work table in the kitchen. A wooden dough bowl on the side and a five gallon pan of flour underneath. She milked her own milk. It cooled in the refrigerator.
I don’t know where she learned the magic. I was just a believer. She would stand there, hands covered in flour, adding a bit of this, pouring some of that, then a pinch for good luck. She rolled out the dough, took a butter knife and cut out the dumplings. She let me throw them in the pot with the chicken. They boiled for a while.
I was a kid, had no need to know about time back then.
She took her prettiest bowl from her pie safe. I watched as she moved the dumplings from pot to bowl.
“Be careful, that’s hot!” I can still hear her voice. “Don’t drop that bowl.”
They didn’t have Saran Wrap back then. Ollie got a piece of wax paper and some cord. She tied the paper to the top of the bowl.
We took everything out to the car. A bowl of dumplings, the coconut cake, the lemon pie and her pound cake. I sat in the back seat.
“Watch them dumplings, don’t let them spill. Be careful with them pies.”
The road to the church was wide, with a lot of curves. Not the straight and narrow the preacher talked about.
I don’t know if they still do dinner on the ground. I would bet there’s no homemade dumplings, no lemon pies, no coconut cake and nary a pound cake on the table.
I miss that. Except for the fruit cake.
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